If you want to play politics, learn the rules
“Don't prorogue! Don't prorogue!” Believe it not, I was about ready to join Phil Fontaine, Gerry Barr and David Suzuki on the barricades under this singularly obscure slogan. Until I discovered that once again, the appropriate banner in Canada's capital these days is “Can't anybody here play this game?” The story starts with my rushing to attend a joint press conference on Tuesday by the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, the chair of Make Poverty History, and the environmentalist world-famous in Canada. When I realized the three of them were incensed about a technical issue of parliamentary procedure I could not contain my enthusiasm. It's just the kind of guy I am. Always living on the edge.
Of narcolepsy, arguably. But never mind. Our governmental structures are collapsing and I've got a bit of time for anyone who cares. So there I was, listening to Mr. Fontaine, Mr. Barr and Mr. Suzuki, deep in the bowels of the Centre Block, complaining that three bills they considered important were about to be squashed by an obscure parliamentary manoeuvre. Specifically, three private members' bills: Bill C-292, the Kelowna Accord Implementation Act; Bill C-288, the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act; and Bill C-293, the Development Assistance Accountability Act. All three have passed the House of Commons and are likely to pass the Senate unless, they said, Parliament was “prorogued” for the summer.
For those of you with lives, I should explain that when Parliament “adjourns,” politicians just put down all the paper, go back to the riding for the summer and come back in the fall to resume where they left off. If, instead, it is “prorogued,” when they return a Throne Speech kicks off a new “session” with a clean slate. (Most drastically, if Parliament is “dissolved,” an election is held.) While I don't actually support C-288, C-292 or C-293, for reasons not germane to the issue at hand, I'd rather see a bill I dislike pass than watch procedural jiggery-pokery further undermine self-government in Canada.
I feel very strongly on that point because our parliamentary system is in serious disrepair. I'm not even sure we have a government at the moment. We live in a parliamentary, not a presidential, system, so we do not elect someone to the office of prime minister whose powers he or she enjoys until the next election regardless of what happens in the legislature. The prime minister is the leader of the group of MPs that can pass money bills and win other confidence measures in Parliament, no more and no less. On which grounds the inability of the Tories to stop bills C-288, C-292 and C-293 raises serious questions about whether they really are “the government.” I think it is wrong for the Tories to cling to the shadow of power without its substance, and equally wrong for the Liberals, NDP and Bloc to seek the fun of legislating without accepting the responsibilities of governing. And I consider it the duty of the governor general to reject any procedural request that would prolong this mess. Even if it means we must have an election because no one enjoys the confidence of the House.
Obscure stuff, you may cry. And in some ways, it is. But it is how parliamentary self-government works so it ought to command our attention. You have to follow the rules if there is to be rule of law, and to follow them, you have to understand them.
Here I blow my procedural top completely. For an astute friend alerted me, in mid-draft of an angry protest column about prorogation, that the standing orders of Parliament were changed so that prorogation no longer kills private members' bills. Ten years ago.
Everybody says they want to give backbenchers more power, especially everybody in opposition. Astoundingly, someone actually did it. In November 1998, the standing orders were changed so that private members' bills, unlike government bills, no longer die if Parliament is prorogued. They stay right where they are.
I didn't know that. I certainly should have, given what I do for a living. My friend, who does not seek the limelight so I name no names, saved me from much worse embarrassment by spotting the error. But what is the excuse of Mr. Fontaine, Mr. Barr and Mr. Suzuki? I do not normally find myself in solidarity with them, but I try to be fair about public matters, and when I thought they were morally right I was prepared to deliver myself of a strongly worded opinion to that effect. Instead, I find that they were factually wrong.
They said proroguing would necessarily mean that these bills would either be lost or badly delayed, and that's not true.
Let's all chant it together: Can't anybody here play this game?
[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]